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It appears to derive from the word "spuddle" which goes back to the Middle Ages, but the earliest I could find for "spudger" was 1877. Any additional information would be appreciated!

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    Thanks for the question. What was meaning or context of 'spudger' when you encountered it? – JEL Mar 19 '19 at 22:35
  • The word spudge is not in the OED, which, is very curious. – Lambie Mar 28 '19 at 14:19
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As far as antedating, the word appears to be at least as old as 1840 in print. The earliest citation I found was from Britain.

The Articles in the Smithery and Nail-house consists of sets of windless rims, palls and hawse pipes; square, flat, and round iron; 2 new anchors, 6 cwt. each; anchor shanks and flukes, belaying ring and set bolts, clamps and chains, and the working tools; ribband, spike, and about 9 cwt. of filling nails, and sundry smaller ditto; crows, spudgers, old hammered and cast-iron; a quantity of wrought copper spikes, augers, brown oakum, prepared tarred paper, 13 iron hurdles, &c., &c.

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If the word, which the OED does not include, does in fact derive from "spuddle," as seems plausible, then it would possibly share that distinction with another word of uncertain origin, spudgel, which the OED attributes as a potential derivative.

A small bowl or bucket with a long handle used for scooping water (esp. when bailing out a boat) and for similar purposes.

This word dates back to 1775:

  • 1775 G. Cartwright Jrnl. 4 June (1911) 159 The boat proved so leaky, that the spudgel was scarce ever out of hand.

I haven't been able to find direct references to the word in reputable dictionaries, though I wouldn't be surprised if other users here will find research that paints a more complete picture.

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  • The spudgel may be related to spoocher, var. sputcher, with the same meaning. Sputcher is intriguing because you just have to voice the tch to get spudger. The origin of these words, however, is French. en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/spoocher – KarlG Mar 28 '19 at 14:30
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Spudger

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Source: computerhope.com

As a small, usually nonconductive tool with a spatulate or wedged end used to repair electronics, the spudger appears in popular sources in the late 1920s. It is a

…6 or 8-in. length of ⅜-in. wooden or bakelite rod, one end of which is cut or filed down to a screwdriver edge, and the other notched. Besides being useful for making adjustments, this tool will also be found handy for locating loose connections and for cleaning and bending up socket prongs, the notch bring used for the latter operation. The spudger can be inserted between the wires without danger of short circuits… — Popular Mechanics 49/5 (May 1928), 835.

Adjustment of this condenser should be made with a spudger. Do not attempt to make this adjustment by hand or with a metal tool, as body capacity and capacity of the tool will interfere. — “Wireless Notes and News,” Brisbane Courier, 11 Oct. 1929.

The Popular Mechanics article includes an illustration of the double tool it describes:

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The name for the tool was presumably used by repairmen and serious radio enthusiasts some time before it appeared in popular sources.

Spudgers of Old

While the tool depicted in Popular Mechanics may be the physical ancestor of the current one, it is not the origin of the word, which in the 19th c. was applied to several scraping, prying, or stirring tools of far greater size.

On 12 June 1839, a Charles Wilds, 49, presented an order from Waterloo Wharf to James Russell, shovelmaker in Bath St., London:

Please to let the bearer have four pointed shovels, four flat, two ladders, and one spudger. — Henry Buckler, stenographer, Central Criminal Court, Minutes of Evidence, v. XII, London, 1839.

The order, it turns out, was forged, and Mr. Wilds was indicted, convicted, and transported for seven years. What this court report doesn’t say, of course, is what a spudger is and what it’s used for, only that it was something a shovelmaker might produce which could come in handy on a wharf.

An 1837 cargo list of a freighter berthing in Sydney is even less informative, though the tool in question is a spudge, not spudger:

… 47 bales woolbagging, 50 hogsheads brandy, 2 cases books, 6 iron spudges, … Sydney Monitor, 23 Aug. 1837.

We have a bit more luck later in the century:

Int. 8. In the manufacture of isinglass prior to the time when scrapers were introduced, permanently adjusted to the rolls, how was it customary to prevent the isinglass being burnt by accumulation upon the surface of the rolls and passing through between the rolls several times?
Ans. They used a stick, made round at one end, for a handle to hold on to, and sharp at the other end, like a wedge, with a piece of steel or iron put on to it so to make it hard and not batter up when coming in contact with the rolls; with that they would dig the accumulated matter from the rolls. The above stick was known or called by isinglass manufacturers a “spudger.” — Deposition of John J. Manning, Supreme Court of the United States, Manning v. Cape Ann Isinglass and Glue Co., Boston, 8 Aug. 1877.

A gelatinous material produced from the air bladders of certain fish species and rolled into sheets, isinglass was essential for clarifying beer and making a particularly elastic glue used in string instruments. Since Manning’s automatic scraper had been in use for four years before he applied for a patent, the court determined that the invention had been in public use and affirmed the lower court’s decision to dismiss.

Another spudger was a stirring device, but of a similar design:

Another method of scaling is to move the fish among each other by means of a stirring stick, locally known as a “spudger.” This instrument is simply a piece of board about a foot in length and 4 or 5 inches wide, which has been securely fastened to a long handle. By means of this the mass of herring is stirred until the scales have all been loosened. — George Brown Goode, The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, 1887.

A third tool has absolutely nothing to do with the first two:

When we get to the corporation cock and find that stopped up so that we can’t push in a reaming tool there, we use an instrument which we call a spudger, which is a section of brass pipe which we secure to the end of the service pipe in the cellar. Into that we fit a wooden plug which will just slip into the brass pipe. We then turn on the pressure, allowing the spudger to fill, meantime holding the water back with the wooden plug. The latter is then hit with a hammer, which causes water hammer and drives any obstruction out of the corporation cock. — Journal of the New England Water Works Association 36 (1922), 83.

It might, however, be a cousin of this kitchen tool, designed to tamp down sauerkraut into jars, called a spludger:

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Source: NicholasLicata.com

With a bit of imagination, one can see someone in a radio/wireless repair shop familiar with the first two full-sized tools determining the task at hand required a miniature version and whipping one up from a scrap piece of dowel stock, and the modern spudger is born.

To Spuddle

The -le suffix is a clue to the two different senses of spuddle: one frequentive — think sparkle from spark — and one instrumental — think handle from hand.

He grubs and spuddles for his prey in muddy holes and obscure cauerns, — John Taylor, The water-cormorant his complaint: against a brood of land-cormorants. Diuided into fourteene satyres, 1622.

Since in the 17th and 18th centuries waterfowl could variously puddle, muddle, or spuddle for food, the New English Dictionary (proto-OED) suggests that spuddle is merely a variation, thus having no distinct etymology beyond the altered initial consonant.

In the latter 19th c., a glossary of West Country dialects notes the following usage:

Spuddle. A fowl is said to be spuddling when scraping the ground for food. So a person fond of uselessly poking the fire is called a “Vire-spuddle.” — George Philip Rigney Pulman, Rustic Sketches, 1871.

This, however, could be a case of “double spuddle,” since a tool resembling a small spade could also be used to stir a fire:

To Spudlee or Spuddle out the Yewmors, – to ſtir or ſpread abroad the Embers, with a little Spud or Poker.— Peter Lock, An Exmoor Scolding, Exeter, 1782.

The instrumental spuddle appearing mid-18th c. derives from spud, which by the 19th c. encompasses enough parts and tools to fill a Home Depot: (1) an iron blade on a handle to clean ploughshares (2) a blade attachment to a plough to clear stubble, (3) a three-tined pitchfork for turning earth, (4) a weeding tool, either a handtool or with a handle, (5) a short piece of metal attached to an axle as a stop to prevent carriage wheels from flying off (6) a chisel-like tool to remove tree bark and, more interestingly, (7) a small spatulate medical instrument for removing foreign objects from the eye (NED), likely so named because it looked like a miniature version of some other tool.

Except for (5), the common denominator of these tools is that they all have, in the broadest sense, a blade. (2) and (4), however, seem to be the only ones to have generated the verb spuddle.

An agent noun from the verb would be a *spuddler, but since the verb itself is derived from the tool, there wouldn’t be much point to it. As it happens, there is such a thing as a spuddler, but the word is a portmanteau of the names of two fishing files, spruce fly and muddler, the spuddler combining features of both designs. If spudger is indeed etymologically related to spuddle, then, it is through their common derivation from spud.

A World of Spuds

In Middle English a spud or spudde was a short knife of inferior quality:

…with a spud or dagger [Commodus] was wounded almost to death, by quintianus a Senatour, and a man of unlawfull and unhonest life: — Ammianus Marcellinus (Philemon Holland, trans.), The Roman Historie, 1609. EEBO

In the 1680s, the shortness of the knife began to be transferred to other objects — also people, and not always in a flattering way. The sixth edition of the dictionary The New World of Words (1706), for instance, defines spud as:

a ſhort ſcurvy Knife; a Short-arſe, or little deſpicable Fellow. —

Attach a blade to a walking staff and it becomes a convenient tool to weed thistles — or, apparently, frightening baby rabbits out of their holes:

… He would go then with a spud staffe
Vnto the leauie vvoods; the dens where Connies had hidden
Their yong ones to seeke, to find yong birds he delighted: — Francis Sabie (Robert Greene, trans.), Pans pipe: three pastorall eglogues, 1595.

And with my spud staff, otherwise,
My recreation makes me smile
At fancies crossing my dull head
When I lay ranting thistles dead. — Thomas St. Nicholas (1602-1668), “Return to the Echo” (letter in verse to his brother) in: H. Neville Davies (ed.), In Vacant Hours: The Poetry of Thomas St. Nicholas and his Family, Birmingham (UK), 2002.

If nothing else, knowing that a spud is a weeding tool enhances the humor in a poem of Jonathan Swift:

My love to Sheelah is more firmly fixt,
Than ſtrongeſt weeds that grow theſe ſtones betwixt:
My ſpud theſe nettles from the ſtones can part,
No knife ſo keen to weed thee from my heart. — Jonathan Swift, “A Pastoral Dialogue,” 1729.

While Samuel Johnson’s dictionary cites these lines for the knife meaning of spud, Swift is playing with both meanings of the word.

Beyond satirical verse, this use of spud engendered in various English dialects the instrumental spuddle:

SPUD. A light garden tool with a long handle, for cutting up weeds.
SPUDDLE, m. To use a spud.
“I be gettin’ in years and can't do no more than just doddle about the ground and spuddle up a few weeds.” — William Douglas Parish, A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect, 1875.

A similar but heavier duty tool shows the generalization of spud meaning a blade of some kind:

…the aker-staffe, being a pretty bigge cudgell of about a yarde in length, with an iron spud at the end, … this akerstaffe the husbandman is euer to carry within his plough, and when at any time the irons, shelboard, or plough, are choaked with durt, clay, or filth, which will cling about the ould stubble; then with this akerstaffe you shall put the same off (your plough still going) and so kepe her cleane and smooth… — Gervase Markham, The English Husbandman, 1623. EEBO

[Firebooms] Are made out of long Sparrs, and fitted with a Spud of Iron at the End, and ferril'd ; their Uſe is to prevent Fire-ſhips boarding, or fending off any others that may fall on board them. — Thomas Riley Blanckley, A Naval Expositor, London, 1750.

And an association with a blade to dig out weeds broadens the definition of spuddle:

In order to destroy what few weeds may remain in the rows, and to give that part of the ground its due share of pulverization, and to cleanse it from the beam-haulin, a plough is set to work soon after harvest, to [spuddle][0] the gratten ; and for this purpose a plate of iron is fixed across the share at about four or five inches from the point, … and with this plough and two horses, three acres of ground may be spuddled in a day… — Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, The Complete Farmer: or, a General Dictionary of Husbandry, 1766.

Do you ſhim thoſe ſtubbles before ploughing? Anſwer. No; but I ſpuddle them, to make the ground as clean as poſſible, Spuddling is performed with the plough, and is of the nature of ſhiming. A broad iron plate, from 15 to 18 inches, is fixed to the plough-ſhare; it makes better work than the ſhim, and goes very ſhallow. — Arthur Young, Annals of Agriculture and Other Useful Arts v.4, 1785.

While the frequentive and instrumental spuddle have different origins, nothing would stop their mutual influence: both can describe a sometimes random poking or digging action.

Spudge

From mid-19th c. into the early 20th, American slang, mostly in New England, was familiar with the verb spudge, but even if there were earlier attestations, it would take far too many metaphorical leaps to see it as the origin of spudger.

To spudge up a sum of money is to fork it over with some reluctance. It does not bear the same sense as to scrape together or dig up money, which implies difficulty in obtaining the money in the first place.

“A hundred and three dollars!” cried the country gents, in one breath, all starting to their feet, and putting on their hats.
The clerk explained it, clear as mud; the trio “spudged up” the amount, looked very sober, and walked out. — Jonathan] F[alconbridge] Kelly (d. 1855), The Humors of Falconbridge, Phila.,1856. Also The Star (Gettysburg PA), 16 May 1851.

“… But then there's the servants — well, I shall have to make my blue Shetland shawl do, and a prayer-book, and Harry must spudge up a little money besides for them!" — Harriett Prescott Spofford, “Mrs. Trench and Christmas,”Sacramento Daily Union , 26 Dec. 1885.

The time for paying your real estate taxes is almost here and you should make an effort to “spudge” before June 1. — Princeton Union (MN), 24 May 1900.

Expenses for cablegrams, postage, stationery and clerical services, amounting to (approx.) $50 have been contributed (Thanksgiving-Xmas fund) and you can't blame the fellers that didn’t spudge up, because some are probably food conservation cranks who don't believe in dinners anyhow, … Col. William Stearns Simmons, The "Little Peter" Papers (WWI informal military newsletter), Boston, 1921, 67.

With persons, it means to apply oneself (“man up”), exert oneself, or to hurry, also others. For this sense, Jonathon Green suggests a variation on push.

Complaint is made that the Prince of Wales is cavalier and impatient in the performance of his public duties. At the Royal Academy dinner he gave the word to the speakers to be brief, and spudged up the Archbishop of Canterbury in a manner that greatly flurried that dignified gentleman. Lorf Derby refused to be hurried, and aired his rhetoric at his leisure… — Charleston Daily News_ (SC), 6 Jun. 1866.

“Nancy,” he began, — “Nancy, girl! I ain’t goin' off to leave you, if your heart’s set against it. I’ll spudge up and take right holt.” — Sarah Orne Jewett, “Marsh Rosemary,” A White Heron and Other Stories, Boston, 1887, 104.

I found one usage, however, that may be a back formation from spudger:

The boys told old Crosscudgell that a snake run into the wall ; and so he spudged in with his kane, where they told him; and he hitt rite into the bumblebees neest ; and the bumblebees flew oute and stung him beautyfull. — James R. Newhall, Ye great and general courte in collonie times. By Obadiah Oldpath, Lynn MA, 1897.

And one attestation that, despite its late date, seems to bring us back to the very beginning:

He took out his spudge of a knife and cut the line. — Leonard Roberts, I Bought me a Dog, and Other Folktales from the Southern Mountains, Berea KY, c1954.

Conclusion

The connection of the modern tool to its full-sized19th c. counterparts, but not to a derivative verb spuddle, seems fairly secure — except for one thing: the palatalization of spud- to spudge- in the original spudgers, for which I have neither attestation nor explanation. I could find, for instance, no early instance of spudder referring to a tool, only to a person:

He passed several years in the country as a potatoe spudder,… — Satirist, or Monthly Meteor v. 13, no. 14 (1 Sept. 1813), 258.

The whole plant may be said to be firmly entrenched in the ground, and it fully tries the strength both of the spud and spudder in the extraction. — David Ross, _Account of Botanical Rambles in the Pyrenees in August, 1862, Edinburgh etc., 1863, 12.

By the way, potatoes weren’t “spuds” in print until 1845, and it was because people needed a spud to dig them.

The nickname “Spudge,” if it is related etymologically to “Spud” — either more recently or back in its ”short-arse” days — might suggest a palatalization of d to dʒ that could have occurred at any point. But a single occurrence of spudge of a knife and spudge in a bill of lading on a ship bound for Sydney is too slender a thread to weave a more concrete theory.

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  • The one in that picture from Popular Mechanics could equally be a "pot twiddler" ("pot" as in potentiometer). In fact it looks to be a rather poor prising tool – Chris H Mar 28 '19 at 14:17
  • @ChrisH: Hey, I just followed the name with the arrow next to it. – KarlG Mar 28 '19 at 14:24
  • Yes, and they're closely related tools anyway. In fact it may even serve to illustrate a little breadth in the modern meaning. And now I'm wndering about a link between spuddle and Scots spurtle in the sense of porridge-stirrer or oatcake-turner, but (i) that's probbaly nothing, and (ii) you get back to spatula that way via the etymology. – Chris H Mar 28 '19 at 14:33
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    The kitchen tool was more commonly a spaddle, ‘little spade’. Not sure when a spatula became cookware and not a medical tool, orig, spathula from Gk. Spuddle, however, is rarely a noun. – KarlG Mar 28 '19 at 14:39

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